'With the Russians in Champagne'
by E. Alexander Powell
from his book ‘Italy at War’ 1917

Allied Solidarity in Practice

Russian troops ashore in Marseilles

Russian troops in trenches on the French front

from a French illustrated daily 'Excelsior' : training Russian troops in France

Russians training with machine-guns - from 'the Illustrated War News'


Leaving Rheims, we took a great gray car and drove south, ever south, until, as darkness was falling, we reached the headquarters of General Jilinsky, commanding the Russian forces fighting in Champagne. Here the Russians have two infantry brigades, with a total of 16,000 men; there is a third brigade at Salonika. The last time the Russians were in France was in 1814, and then they were there for a different purpose. Little could Napoleon have dreamed that they, who helped to dethrone him, would come back, a century later, as France's allies. Yet this war has produced stranger coincidences than that. The British armies, disembarking at Rouen, tramp through that very square where their ancestors burned the Maid of Orleans. And at Pont des Briques, outside Boulogne, where Napoleon waited impatiently for weeks in the hope of being able to invade England, is now situated the greatest of the British base camps.

General Jilinsky reminded me of a fighting-cock. He is a little man, much the height and build of the late General Funston, with hair cropped close to the skull, after the Russian fashion; through a buttonhole of his green service tunic was drawn the orange-and-black ribbon of the Order of St. George. He can best be described as "a live wire." His staff- officers impressed me as being as efficient and razor-keen as their chief. The general asked me if I would like to visit his trenches, and I assured him that it was the hope of being permitted to do so which bad brought me there. Whereupon a staff-officer disappeared into the hall to return a moment later with a gas-mask in a tin case and a steel helmet covered with tan linen.

"You had better take these with you," he said. "There is nearly always something happening on our front, and there is no sense in taking unnecessary risks."

I soon found that the precaution was not an idle one, for, as our car drew up at the entrance to the boyau which led by devious windings into the first-line trenches, the group of officers and men assembled in front of brigade headquarters were hastily donning their masks: grotesque-looking contrivances of metal, cloth, and rubber, which in shape resembled a pig's snout.

"Gas," said my Russian companion briefly. "We will stay here until it is over."


left : a photo of a young Russian mascot
right : as seen by an illustrated weekly magazine 'le Petit Journal'


Though we must have been nearly a mile behind the firing-line, the air was filled with a sweetish, sickish smell which suggested both the operating-room and the laboratory. So faint and elusive was the odor that I hesitated to follow the example of the others and don my mask, until I remembered having been told at Souchez, on the British front, that a horse had been killed by gas when seven miles behind the lines.

It is a logical development of this use of chemicals as weapons that the horses in use on the French front are now provided with gas-masks in precisely the same manner as the soldiers. These masks, which are kept attached to the harness, ready for instant use, do not cover the entire face, as do those worn by the men, but only the mouth and nostrils. In fact they resemble the feeding-bags which cartmen and cab-drivers put on their horses for the midday meal. Generally speaking, the masks are provided only for artillery horses and those employed in hauling ammunition though it now seems likely that if the cavalry gets a chance to go into action, masks will be worn by the troopers and their horses alike. After a large gas attack the fumes sometimes settle down in the valleys far behind the lines, and hours may elapse before they are dissipated by the wind. As it not infrequently happens that one of these gas banks settles over a road on which it is imperative that the traffic be not interrupted, large signs are posted notifying all drivers to put the masks on their horses before entering the danger zone.

There are now three different kinds of gases in general use on the Western Front. The best known of these is a form of chlorine gas, which is liberated from cylinders or flasks, to be carried by the wind over the enemy's lines. Contrary to the popular impression, its use is not as general as the newspaper accounts have led the public to believe, for it requires elaborate preparation, can only be employed over comparatively flat ground, and then only when the wind is of exactly the right velocity, neither too light nor too strong. Another form of asphyxiating gas is held in shells in liquid form, usually in lead containers. Upon the bursting of the shell, which is fired from an ordinary field-gun, the liquid rapidly evaporates and liberates the gas, a few inhalations of which are sufficient to cause death. The third type consists of lachrymal, or tear-producing, gas, which is used in the same way as the asphyxiating, but its effects are not fatal, merely putting a man out of action for a few hours. It is really, however, the most efficacious of the three types, as it does not evaporate as readily as the asphyxiating gas. As a well distributed fire of lachrymal shells will form a screen of gas which will last for several hours, they are often used during an attack to prevent the enemy from bringing up reinforcements. Another use is against artillery positions, the clouds of gas from the lachrymal shells making it almost impossible for the men to serve the guns. I was also told of these shells having been used with great success to surround the headquarters of a divisional commander, disabling him and his entire staff during an attack.


two pages from the French magazine : 'Sur le Vif'
Russians in the front-line in France


Before a change in the wind dissipated the last odors of gas, darkness had fallen. "Now," said my cicerone, "we will resume our trip to the trenches." The last time that I had seen these trenches, which the Russians are now holding, was in October, 1915, during the great French offensive in Champagne, when I had visited them within a few hours after their capture by the French. On that occasion they bad been so pounded by the French artillery that they were little more than giant furrows in the chalky soil, and thickly strewn along those furrows was all the horrid garbage of a battlefield: twisted and tangled barbed wire, splintered planks, shattered rifles, broken machine-guns, unexploded hand-grenades, knapsacks, water-bottles, pieces of uniforms, bits of leather, and, most horrible of all, the remains of what had once been human beings. But all this d6bris had long since been cleared away. Under the skilful hands of the Russians the rebuilt trenches had taken on a neat and orderly appearance. The earthen walls had been revetted with wire chicken-netting, and instead of tramping through ankle-deep mud, we bad beneath our feet neat walks of corduroy. We tramped for what seemed interminable miles in the darkness, always zig-zagging.

Now and then we would come upon little fires, discreetly screened, built at the entrances to dugouts burrowed from the trench-walls. Over these fires soldiers in flat caps and belted greatcoats were cooking their evening meal. I had expected to see unkempt men wearing sheepskin caps, men with flat noses and matted beards, but instead I found clean-shaven, splendidly set-up giants, with the pink skins that come from perfect cleanliness and perfect health. Following the direction of the arrows on signs printed in both French and Russian, we at last reached the fire-trench, where dim figures looking strangely medieval in their steel helmets, crouched motionless, peering out along their rifle-barrels into the eerie darkness of No Man's Land. Here there was a sporadic illumination, for from the German trenches in front of us lights were rising and falling. They were very beautiful: slender stems of fire arching skyward to burst into blossoms of brilliant sparks, which illuminated the band of shell-pocked soil between the trenches as though it were day. Occasionally there would be a dozen of these star-shells in the air at the same time: they reminded me of the Fourth of July fireworks at Manhattan Beach. In the fire-trenches there is no talking save in whispers, but every now and then the almost uncanny silence would be punctuated by the sharp crack of a rifle, the tut-tut-tut of a mitrailleuse or from somewhere in the distance, the angry bark of a field-gun.

There was a whispered conversation between the officer in command of the trench and my guide. The latter turned to me. “We have driven a sap to within thirty meters of the enemy,” he said, “and have established a listening-post out there. Would you care to go out to it?"

I would, and said so.

"No talking, then, if you please," he warned me, "and as little noise as possible."


Russian soldiers in Mailly in France


This time the boyau was very narrow, and writhed between its earthen walls like a dying snake. We advanced on tiptoe, as cautiously, as though stalking big game - as, indeed, we were. Ten minutes of this slow and tortuous progress brought us to the poste d’écoute. In a space the size of a hall bedroom half a score of men stood in attitudes of strained expectancy, staring into the blackness through the loopholes in their steel shields. There being no loophole vacant, I took a chance and, standing on the firing step, raised my head above the level of the parapet and made a hurried survey of the few yards of No Man's Land which separated us from the enemy - a space so narrow that I could have thrown a stone across, yet more impassable than the deepest chasm. I was rewarded for the risk by getting a glimpse of a dim maze of wire entanglements, and, just beyond, a darker bulk which I knew for the German trench. And I knew that from that trench sharp eyes were peering out into the darkness toward us just as we were trying to discern them. As I stepped down from my somewhat exposed position a soldier standing a few feet farther along the line raised his head above the parapet, as though to relieve his cramped muscles. Just then a star-shell burst above us, turning the trench into day.

Ping!!! There was a ringing metallic sound, as when a 22-caliber bullet strikes the target in a shooting-gallery, and the big soldier who had incautiously exposed himself crumpled up in the bottom of the trench with a bullet through his helmet and through his brain. The young officer in command of the listening-post cursed softly. "I'm forever warning the men not to expose themselves," he said irritatedly, "but they forget it the next minute. They're nothing but stupid children." He spoke in much the same tone of annoyance he might have used if the man had been a clumsy servant who had broken a valuable dish. Then he went into the tiny dugout where the telephone was, and rang up the trench commander, and asked him to send out a bearer, for the boyau communicating with the listening-post was too narrow to admit the passage of a stretcher. The bearer arrived just as we started to return. He was a regular dray-horse of a man, with shoulders as massive and competent as those of a Constantinople hamel. Strapped to his back by a sort of harness was a contrivance which looked like a rude armchair with the legs cut off. His comrades hoisted the dead man onto the back of the live man, and with a rope took a few turns about the bodies of both. As we made our slow way back to the fire-trench, and so to the rear, there stumbled at our heels the grunting porter with his ghastly burden. Now and then I would glance over my shoulder and, in the fleeting glare of the star-shells, would glimpse, above the porter's straining shoulders, the head of the dead soldier lolling inertly from side to side, as though very, very tired . . . .

And I wondered if in some lonely cabin by the Volga a woman was praying for her boy.


two pages from British magazines
left : 'the War Budget' and right : 'the War Illustrated'

left : coverpage from 'the Sphere' - Russians disembarking at Marseilles
right : from ''the War Illustrated'

two pages from 'the Illustrated War News'

left : Russian trenches in France
right : a funeral in a Russian chapel in France

two pages from a Swiss illustrated weekly : 'Schweizer Illustrierte Zeitung'

from 'les Annales'


see also French language texts
Les Russes Arrivent en France, 1916
Les Russes en France
l'Arrivée des Russes à Marseille
Petits Soldats Alliés



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